Monday, November 17, 2014

What a difference a word makes

I listened to the radio on my way to a meeting this morning and heard Karen Blackett, CEO of Mediacom, talking about part time working. The one thing she said which really struck a chord with me involved changing one word. Let’s go back a step first though (a big step to start): 

Anubis weighing a heart.
National Geographic, Ancient Egyptians - Book of the Dead

As long ago as 3000 years BC, sophisticated weights and measures were standardised. Amongst the intriguing early equipment excavated from ancient sites there are many sets of scales and weights. The ancient Egyptians believed that Anubis measured your heart against a feather in the afterlife, to see if you were worthy of entry into heaven.  

Scales work by achieving balance; things are measured against each other and an even weight for each achieved through adjustment. Balance, visually and by implication, suggests (to me) exclusivity. If you have a pound of gold on one side, and a pound of steel on the other, though they weigh the same, they are different. You would not balance the scale by putting some gold on with the steel, or vice versa.

But back to Karen and her talk about the workplace. The current popular phrase for how people cope with their work and home life is ‘work life balance’. This implies that you cannot combine the two – that you have work, or you have home, and never the twain shall meet.  That may have been true in past times, in an industrialised era when the knocker-upper woke you for your shift at the factory, and the whistle blew for knocking off time. A period of ‘hard knocks’, to say the least. But is it true now?

A knocker upper

Today we still have industrialised occupations, but we also have a much wider world of work which includes remote working, home working, even virtual working. We can attend conferences without leaving our desk, or even without leaving our homes. As we become more digitised, as communications have rushed us into the 21st century (not exactly kicking and screaming but more tweeting and streaming), so our working lives have also changed.

Karen used the term ‘work life blend’ – and the substitution of that one word (balance for blend) makes a world of difference. Home life and work life are a combination – and frequently flow into each other instead of being mutually exclusive.  Work doesn’t just begin when you get to the office; individuals are ‘clocking on’ before they even leave home (Mozy, 2012)

Though this one word may seem quite a simple change, it has an impact on perception. Conflicting demands of work and home can cause excessive stress (Health & Safety Executive, 2014). And research suggests further stress - ‘a conflict between high-performance practices and work-life balance policies’ (White, 2003).  It is understandable, therefore, that many individuals seek to reduce the stress that an ever-demanding working life puts on them.  

If you change the word ‘balance’, which implies juggling, struggling, with ‘blend’, which implies combination and mutuality, you are instantly addressing the challenge with a positive starting attitude. Sometimes the change can be small – just one word – but the difference it could make may be huge.


Health & Safety Executive. (2014). What about stress at home? Retrieved from Health & Safety Exeuctive: 
Mozy. (2012). The New 9 to 5. Retrieved November 2014, from
White, M. H. (2003). High-performance’ Management Practices, Working Hours and Work–Life Balance'. British Journal of Industrial Relations.

Further reading

Knocker upper photo courtesy of

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What I learned from The Wiggles

My children are now in their 20s, so sitting down with two toddlers and sharing the ‘The Wiggles’ experience with them was a novelty for me. Gone for me are the days of Tots TV, Rosie and Jim or even the Teletubbies.

The Wiggles, for the uninitiated, are a four piece music combo from Australia who entertain children with a wide range of songs and dances from around the world. The colours are bright, the sets (green-screen performance, animated backdrops) are bright, fun, and everything you’d expect for a children’s programme. In the twenty minutes or so I experienced them, they sang in English, in Greek, and even featured Leo Sayer for one song.

There was no narrative, no rationale as to why a pirate was singing, or a cowboy (unless the song had a particular theme), and they used children’s rhymes and traditional folk tunes and songs too. They played bouzouki, accordion, mandolin, guitar… basically a pretty folky set, but with all the enthusiasm and vigour that was more in keeping with a punk rock band. They danced line dances, classical dances, and even some ballet.

The Wiggles have been around for years, it seems, and have a series of programmes that feature them young, older, heavier, thinner, one of them changes completely, but is consistently bright and non-stop musical. There is some educational content too, but it is not as overt as Sesame Street, for example.

The two youngsters I was with (23 months and 4) were enraptured. The 4 year old was a little too self-aware and conscious of me (not well known to her) to do the dancing, but the little one stamped his feet and wobbled around the room if not in time to the music, certainly inspired by it.

These guys found a formula – and it worked. Their simple, colourful delivery of music and dance captivates youngsters. They include their family in the programmes – having their children, friends, mothers even (who knows) join in the dancing and singing. They invited celebrities who seem (I’ve only seen the Leo Sayer one) to revel in the opportunity to behave like a child and simply have fun with the music.

The programme is inclusive not in the PC-dictatorial way that they have to represent every minority, but in the way that they engage their unseen audience. They want you to dance, they don’t tell you, they just do it and hope you’ll do it too. They sing in different languages, they make music from around the world, and they express what appears to be simple joy in music and dance.

They have never had a hit single (as far as I am aware), they may dress up in luridly bright costumes and leap about madly, yet as musicians they’ve earned my respect. They found a market niche and exploited it. And,  this band of entertainers are in fact now multi-millionaires. As a musician myself, I have huge respect for the Wiggles; not because they have made millions (though that must be nice), but because they have managed to make a living entertaining, teaching, and spreading the joy of music and dance to the younger generations of many nations.

Who would not want a career where you can behave with such abandon, doing something you love. 

Photo credit: The Wiggles.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mind your language

Working in marketing, and in medical research, we tend to have a whole host of buzz words, jargon and acronyms that are in daily use and easily recognisable within our organisation. In fact that's pretty much true of every organisation I've worked in, no matter what sector.

One of my colleagues mentioned the other day that her granny had received one of our fundraising letters. 'That's our cold pack' she said. To which granny was, of course, nonplussed. Now those of you in marketing will know that 'cold' means an audience with whom you have no previous recorded contact. Whilst 'pack' is just a jargon term for whatever it is that we have dropped through your letter box.

I dare not think about the number of terms I use every day that are marketing-speak, it's quite scary really. The thing is - whether it's cold, warm, cultivation or acquisition, retention or whatever term you like to use - it's people. We are talking to people.

We do not categorise ourselves as cold or warm, we think of ourselves as supporters, or new supporters, or just not at all. Why should we think of ourselves in context to an organisation we have no relationship with? Though marketers need to have some kind of 'bag' to put us in to be able to manage what they(we) do (and because we do behave in certain ways as a group), we mustn't lose sight of the individual. 'Always remember you are unique. Just like everyone else' US scientist Margaret Mead once said.

The point of this little post is not to show off my marketing lingo, or to criticise its use. I just want us to remember that, when we are talking to audiences, we are talking to people. If you want to tell your granny (or anyone for that matter) what you do for a job, don't blind her with jargon, use words that have meaning to everyone. And that counts for your outgoing messaging and external facing communications - I mean letters and emails outside your organisation of course.

So, mind your language.

Photo credit: unknown clipart found on IT sales site

Friday, October 17, 2014

A London picnic

A few months back on a trip to London, my friend and I stopped in Charing Cross station to eat our picnic. An odd picnic site perhaps, but it made sense as it was tipping with rain outside and we were due to visit a nearby theatre shortly.

We sat on a bench in the station and watched the people come and go - all sorts, some in a hurry and some not so. We enjoyed watching different scenarios play out in front of us as people met, rushed for a train, flirted or rushed by with the cares of the world on their brow.

It only takes a smile
At one point a lady walked by us as we sat and ate and she turned to look at us sitting there, eating our picnic. I smiled, she looked a nice person. She smiled back and came over to talk to us. 'Because you smiled' she said.

She turned out to be an amazing character, larger than life. After some joking and a quick resumé of her way to make millions ('I have this idea that Apple, that's what we call Steve, would have loved), we continued the conversation. She asked why we were in London (to see Lion King) and then told us why she was here.

The reason she was in London was to appeal to court to take custody of an abused child she and her partner  had looked after when the mother abandoned the girl.

A simple smile rewarded my friend and I with fifteen minutes of insight into someone else's life - someone we would never meet again, or know what happened to them and the people they cared about.  They had been through a difficult day in court, and wouldn't know the outcome for some time - three lives could change so dramatically according to what the court might decide.

Claudine (she told us her name, and her age, and that they came from Leicester) was so happy to have had a smile, she said. They were an unusual couple - different ethnicities, and a 20 year age gap. But they both loved this child. We listened to her and gave her time, which was a gift she needed that day. My enduring memory of her is an aura of joy that she wore as comfortably as her big, warm coat.

So next time you are sitting in a station, or walking through, maybe a simple smile will make someone's day. You may not get the chance to talk with that person as we did with Claudine, but your smile could just be the difference they need.

Photo by me of my hot chocolate.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From Saigon to Cantley

I have to admit the title of this blog post is a bit of a cheat - because I went to see 'Miss Saigon' - I didn't go there. But even so, a trip to London now and then, for purely social purposes, is worth a mention. The production was very good and the singing most enjoyable, but I have to confess that I prefer Madame Butterfly.

However, my post this week starts with Miss Saigon on a Wednesday evening, as it was the opener
for a few days off. After trekking into London (well, getting chauffeur driven in a small mini-bus with some colleagues from work) we enjoyed a quick cider in the Three Greyhounds before seeing the show. We had good seats, and after a lovely evening managed to make it home just after midnight.

Thursday morning I headed with my friend to Norwich and to a few days rest and relaxation. We started off with a short walk round the marshes to the south of the city - and saw very little wildlife, but some really lovely trees. I like willows, and they have 'crack willows' on this little nature reserve tucked away inside the ring road, but just outside the city. I wonder - can you get addicted to this kind of tree?

This butterfly settled on me before heading into the tree
 Friday was shopping day - and we went to a low-cost store in the city to stock up on bits and pieces for our weekend. My friend lives in Norwich, but we were both surprised when in the store we bumped into a friend of mine! He lives in Diss - a few miles away - but what a small world, we were both in that shop in Norwich, as visitors, at the same time.

In the evening we went to the Norwich Folk Club and saw the highly talented Georgia Shackleton. A delightful evening - and I even got to sing a couple of songs too. I was asked back as well, but it won't be my weekly hang out for geographical reasons.

Saturday we headed into the city and went on an open top bus tour. We stopped off at the Roman Catholic cathedral (the second largest in England and large enough to be used as a reference point for pilots in the second world war).  Our first visit, though, was not to this imposing building, but to the Plantation Garden nearby. If you are a visitor to Norwich, I can thoroughly recommend this hidden delight.

Despite its Gothic appearance, the church is only 100 years old

The plantation garden.

The Italianate steps at the end lead to a small rustic summerhouse

After After our visit to the garden, we headed back to the church. There was a wedding on and, whilst two young people pledged their vows before their god, we climbed 247 steps to heaven - well, to the roof. here's some of the pictures I took:

It looks like stone, but it is brick built with a stone facade

In the roofspace

Tremendous views over Norwich

Look up!

Look down

The other cathedral

Lots and lots of steps...

Interior - looks more than its 100 years old

One of the ornate bosses

 Saturday evening we rested, but Sunday it was time for a trip on the Broads. We hired a noddy boat (a small day cruiser) with some friends who also live in Norwich, and headed out across the Yare. We chugged slowly up the river to Rockland where we stopped for a fantastic lunch at the New Inn. Dodging sail boats, scaring up kingfishers, disturbing the herons and intriguing the ducks (we didn't have any bread for them), five of us and a dog (Five go Mad in Norfolk?) had an extremely pleasant autumn day on the water.
We had to dodge the sailboats

Abandoned windpump at Cantley

After lunch we headed further along the river to Cantley, and eventually turned round and came back to the boatyard at Brundall. A thoroughly relaxing and pleasurable day.

And now I'm back at home, and enjoying this little post, and these pictures, and the lovely memories of a wonderful county, and even better friends.

All photographs by Carrie Sheppard (C)

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Mind your... mind

Many years ago, when employed at a learning and development specialist, we all had a 'team day'. We didn't build bridges across the river with a ball of string and three tin cans, but we did have fun laser-shooting each other and running around a field together. Not everyone's idea of fun, but I enjoyed it.

At one point, either on this or another away day, we had a meditation session. We all sat in a darkened room whilst a timer softly went 'bong' at regular intervals. I have to say I couldn't sit still. I wiggled, I opened my eyes (to watch everyone else with their eyes closed), and I had a desperate urge to run around the room. In other words, I wasn't much good at meditating!

And now?

Mindfulness is a real buzz word at the moment - especially in the 'self-aware' and 'self-help' arena. But it's also raising it's head in the business world, with the benefits of meditation, taking personal time out and simply learning how to relax being great tools in the battle against stress.

I recently undertook a short course on mindfulness - because I do get stressed. I have a busy job, a busy social life, and don't always take the best course of action for a stress-free life. I first heard about mindfulness at work - a free hour session on the science park where I spend my days. I attended the hour, and thought that the basic principles were pretty sound. And, goodness knows, I could surely do with some quiet time in my mind.

I dream at night in full colour, full adventures, sometimes horrific, sometimes lovely, most often busy and intriguing and quite often exhausting. My mind is a pretty busy place, even when I'm asleep. So mindfulness seemed like a good starting place.

I signed up for a short e-course, but it wasn't just on line. I received regular texts and one to one calls from the course leader, Sam, and he talked me through the techniques, and through issues I was experiencing. He didn't offer advice, he didn't tell me what I should or shouldn't do, he listened, and he explained how mindfulness could help. And it did.

I developed the mindfulness habit, and now every night (well almost, after my party in the summer I couldn't stay awake to do it) I spend just a few minutes being mindful. Learning to clear my mind has not been easy - it's still a busy place and I still dream in surroundsound and technicolour, but slowly I am learning to relax my mind. I've discovered different depths of vision when my eyes are closed (who knew!) and also how to focus better on nothing, rather than everything. Then when something barges in, it's not cluttered, and I can deal with it.  Thank you Sam!

So, I'm a mindfulness convert. My next programme is a 'tiny pause' - to help with sleeping. I'm not the greatest of sleepers, so let's hope this next adventure is as useful and practical as the last.

Meditate? No, still not something I think I could do, not for more than maybe ten deep breaths...

Liked this? Try this... (the 'away day' as mentioned above)
More from my blog on EFT

Photo credit Microsoft Clipart

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sneak Peak

Yes, Peak. This weekend I went to Youlgreave (or grave, or a number of other spellings) in the Peak District.

Yours for around £1m...
The countryside is spectacular and the village quite charming. There is one rather lovely house for sale - now where is my lottery ticket? I think it would make a rather good folk music and dance retreat. Ah, wishes and dreams!

The weekend was not about walking, though we did some of that; it was about something that I've not really done before, and not a lot of people I know do it either. I got my 'sneak peek' into the world of Circle Dance.

I had been to a small circle dance before, in the deep wilds of Norfolk, but this was very different. This was communal living for four days, sharing food, dancing together, sometimes walking together and generally being very sociable.  OK, we stayed in a B&B at the local pub which wasn't very communal (some folks stayed and slept on the floor in the basement of the village hall), but it was very pleasant indeed.

I'm not much of a dancer, to corrupt a line from one of my own songs, 'I'd rather be playing' - but if you can't play, then dancing is good too!

What I like about circle dance is that you don't have to be an expert dancer, you don't have to do the fast ones, and you don't have to have a partner. It's like line dancing, only joined up (well, not exactly, but there are similarities). Everyone dances together, no gender differentiation, and 'no mistakes, only variations'.

At the end of a dance, the circle continues to hold hands and just 'enjoys' the sense of community that dancing together brings. It could border on the spiritual, and at the end of a dance session we came together in more of a circle 'hug' and - despite my cautious, skeptical nature, I found it very relaxing and pleasant.

We didn't dance non-stop - afternoons were free and we chose to walk the wonderful countryside nearby, especially enjoying walks along the Bradford river which was a stroll from the village hall where we were
dancing. The weather was mostly good and I was delighted to see grey wagtail, dippers and even a kingfisher.

They were good people, and I made new friends and learned how do to many of the moves that are repeated in different dances. There were dances from Turkey, Russia, Israel, Greece, the Balkans and many more. An international, harmonic, sociable, relaxing yet sometimes energet
A dipper, dipping!
ic way to spend a long weekend.

My friend who invited me is keen to go again - well, I think I just might!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A walk on the wild side

Thetford forest was established just after the war to provide timber for England. The huge tracts of pine forest provide sustainable timber and are also a haven for wildlife.

This Sunday I had the pleasure of walking round a part I’d not visited before – Lynford arboretum. The pine woods were cool on such a hot day, and the goldcrests continually called from the treetops. Evident as they were audibly, visibly they were hidden.

Our woodland walk took us past a lake and the lilies were abundant – providing the most perfect backdrop for some swans and their cygnets.  Butterflies abounded too and on one buddleia we saw four species: speckled wood, peacock, red admiral and comma. They were joined by a multitude of smaller bugs too, including hoverflies.

Everyone we met along the way smiled and shared a ‘good morning’ or a smile. A young mother with three children and two dogs sat entertaining her youngest in a pram whilst two older boys played in the stream – good old fashioned outdoor fun. 

The shade of the trees played patterns with the sunshine on the path, and the lush green grass hummed with life. In one small patch we stopped to look at we could see damsel flies, moths, butterflies and delightful yellow-backed beetles.

Eventually our walk took us to the arboretum and a magnificent avenue of sequoia. We could still hear the birds but they remained obscure. We saw dragonflies aplenty, and as we walked beneath a beech tree we heard a cracking sound. We stood still beneath the tree and then heard the clatter of empty beechnut shells tumbling down through the branches and onto the floor (and sometimes onto us). It took a while, but we eventually spotted the squirrel who was so engaged in eating that he thought nothing of littering the floor below.

As we wandered into the arboretum we saw many trees and hunted for labels which confused us more than they informed. Between the arboretum and the woods were beautiful meadows – wildflowers scattered amongst the long grass with the random beauty that only nature can plan.

The forest is famous for its hawfinches, crossbills and many other less common birds. Though we didn’t see any of these, it was nonetheless the most delightful walk.

All photos (C) Carolyn Sheppard

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"Nature. Cheaper than therapy." Anon